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Plan well before starting a backyard chicken flock

By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Extension Service

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Backyard chicken flocks continue to grow in popularity as Mississippians embrace the ability to produce some of their own food and enjoy the quirky personalities of the birds.

Tom Tabler, poultry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said those considering starting a backyard flock need to make clear-headed plans before bringing home darling little chicks.

“Raising chickens is not as easy as you may have been led to believe. It takes work,” Tabler said. “There’s a reason you didn’t have chickens before now. Make sure that you have the time and money to devote to them before you start.”

Even before choosing a breed of chicken, there are decisions to be made. If the homeowner intends to sell meat or eggs, there are regulatory steps that include registering the flock with the Mississippi Board of Animal Health. Be sure to observe all city or county ordinances that may be in place limiting the size of the flock and the presence of roosters.

“Then you should talk to neighbors about your intention to establish a backyard flock, and determine the time commitment required to properly care for the birds,” he said. “Who will care for the birds on a daily basis, and who will step in when you are out of town?”

In mid-2020, Joel Misita of Natchez started raising chickens when he, his son Joseph and two of Joseph’s fellow Boy Scouts designed and constructed an elaborate coop to house 11 chickens given to them by a friend.

“Having chickens is very fun and fascinating, but it is one more thing to have to take care of and do while trying to raise a family and live life,” Misita said.

The family now has 25 birds of a few different varieties, and they raise them for eggs. The coop they built is mobile, designed to be moved to a new location every few days to offer the chickens fresh foraging options.

“We get the byproduct of eggs, but raising chickens is interesting and a very whole experience,” Misita said.

There is a lot to learn about how to care for birds and keep them healthy, what to do if they are sick, where to purchase feed, what kind of space each bird needs, and how to keep them warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Preparing the housing structure is the next big step. Housing can be as simple as a wire frame with a roof or as elaborate as a decorated chicken mansion. Determine what meets individual demands, and run electricity and water to the structure if needed.

Selecting a breed is another important consideration.

“Are you interested in helping preserve a breed from going extinct, or are you raising chickens for eggs or meat or both?” he asked. “Certain breeds are more friendly to people than other birds, some breeds are good foragers, and others are better suited to hot, humid weather.”

Select a breed that meets personal goals, and avoid selecting a bird based on looks, simple availability or what kind a friend has.

Shelter is incredibly important. Chickens make easy targets for a variety of predators, plus they need cover from the sun and elements.

“Chickens have a wide range of natural predators: the aerial variety, such as hawks and owls, to the ground type, such as rats, raccoons, opossums, skunks, foxes and coyotes,” Tabler said. “Many of these wild predators can threaten backyard flocks in town where you also have to protect the birds from pets such as dogs and cats.”

Some chicken owners are able to allow their birds to run free during the day. But at night, all birds need covered protection that is sealed to keep predators out. Tabler said the safest way to keep chickens is keep them in a structure that has both a nesting and nighttime shelter and a covered outdoor run.

Biosecurity is a critical part of raising chickens. Tabler said those with small backyard flocks must make protecting the health of their birds a high priority.

“Biosecurity practices and protocols are designed to prevent the spread of disease and maintain healthy flocks,” Tabler said. “The primary components of biosecurity for backyard flocks are isolation, traffic control and sanitation.”

Isolate birds from visitors and other birds. Prevent disease from spreading by cleaning shoes, tools, equipment and housing for the chickens. Avoid sharing items with another chicken owner, as this can spread disease from an infected flock.

Owners should also know the warning signs of infectious disease, such as coughing, sneezing, lethargy, watery eyes, nasal discharge, and decreased food and water intake.

“Flocks affected with a disease such as avian influenza, infectious laryngotracheitis, virulent Newcastle disease or fowl typhoid must be reported to the Mississippi Board of Animal Health,” Tabler said. “A local veterinarian or the MSU Poultry Research and Diagnostic Laboratory at Pearl can help diagnose sick chickens.”

The MSU Extension Service has a variety of publications and information on aspects of raising backyard chickens, all available at http://extension.msstate.edu/publications.